The Survival of Dumb Ideas

On the National Interest’s Skeptics blog, I discuss Steve Walt’s article in the latest Foreign Policy magazine: “Where Do Bad Ideas Come From?” Walt explains why discredited ideas about foreign policy survive despite all the study and debate we give to them in this country. He is really talking about failure in what John Stuart Mill calls the “marketplace of ideas“—the tendency of free speech to bring debate that promotes good ideas and demotes bad ones, driving public policy toward improvement.

My take is that Walt’s impressive analysis has two flaws. First, he thinks it wise and possible to free policy debate from the clutches of interest groups. Second, he fails to appreciate how politics differs from academic semimars. Ideas about policy are generally the product, rather than the cause, of differing preferences about policy. They are tools to rally political support, not hypotheses that their authors are eager to test. Political debate tends to reify divisions rather than unify people around mutally-acknowledged truths.

From my post:

Walt writes that “this problem with self-interested individuals and groups interfering in the policy process appears to be getting worse.” That sentence carries the quixotic and undemocratic assumption that there once existed another kind of policy-making process, one free of self-interested actors, where all participants honestly argued in service of the national interest, and that those halcyon days can be restored. But a marketplace of ideas without self-interested groups and actors would be one robbed of the lion’s share of intellectual capital. Self-interest is the engine of policy-making in democracy, not its enemy.

Walt thinks that either the public or the politicians that serve them are like judges, weighing contending views to arrive at wise policy; or like academics, studying ideas to arrive at preferences, which they simply enact. A more accurate description of policy-making comes from pluralism (pluralist scholars include David Truman, Edward Banfield, Charles Lindblom, James Q. Wilson, and Robert Dahl), which imagines a more intense, but less efficient, marketplace of ideas. The American government, pluralists tell us, is an arena for the competition of interest groups (ideological or economic), manifested in pressure groups and governmental agencies. Collective action theory explains that only these concentrated interests will be reliably motivated to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Those interests’ contention is our politics; its current outcome is policy. Presidents preside over this fray, but their control is far less than we generally imagine. They accept the status quo far more than they change it, and having accepted it, they sell that compromise as their own policy, using ideas to match it to the national interest.

Bad ideas then persist because they are useful weapons in policy-fights. Policy-makers are more like lawyers than judges, using arguments about how their preferred policies serve the national interest to win adherents. Walt cites the resurrection of domino theory to illustrate his argument, arguing as if its intellectual defeat would prevent the policies it justifies. Instead, if no one believed in the domino theory, hawks would simply employ another argument about why we should fight in Afghanistan, or wherever we are next.